“Intimidated, unsure, defensive, distracted, fearful of what opponents are up to next … these symptoms are all too descriptive of pastors, elders, and even entire congregations that have been repeatedly blindsided by conflict.”
The recent hit movie, The Blind Side, provides a surprisingly vivid illustration of how a well-trained shepherd can serve as a “left offensive tackle” to guard a church and its families from crippling conflict.
The movie opens with a slow-motion rerun of the five-second play that destroyed the career of the Washington Redskins’ quarterback, Joe Theismann. The first four seconds of the play went just as planned, but then Theismann was hit from the left (a right-handed quarterback’s blind side) by a 245-pound battering ram: New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Theismann’s leg was so badly mangled that he never played ball again.
This shocking scene sets the stage for the movie’s protagonist, a homeless, learning-disabled teen named Michael Oher. He is plucked from the streets by a compassionate Christian family. With their help, he overcomes his disabilities and discovers that he has that unique combination of size, speed, and agility needed to guard a quarterback’s greatest vulnerability—his blind side. Michael goes on to become one of the most aggressively recruited left offensive tackles in college and NFL history.
Like a quarterback, every church has points of vulnerability, such as congregational apathy, disorganized leadership, inadequate facilities, or weak preaching. These weaknesses may slow a church’s progress down the field, but they seldom remove it from the game permanently.
But there is one point of vulnerability that exposes every church in the world to being crippled as devastatingly as Joe Theismann was in his last play. When a church gets blindsided by conflict, it can be injured beyond repair.
Like Lawrence Taylor, conflict can slam into a church from many directions: gossip, unpopular change, divided leadership, doctrinal disputes, worship wars, sexual misconduct, congregational showdowns. These conflicts can destroy churches as suddenly and completely as Taylor crippled Theismann.
Even when there is not a crushing injury, pastors and congregations that have been blindsided by conflict can develop the same symptoms as quarterbacks who have been repeatedly sacked. According to Taylor’s coach, Bill Parcells, these symptoms include “intimidation, lack of confidence, quick throws, nervous feet, concentration lapses, wanting to know where Lawrence is all the time.” (Lewis, Michael, The Blind Side (W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2009), p. 17)
Intimidated, unsure, defensive, distracted, fearful of what opponents are up to next … these symptoms are all too descriptive of pastors, elders, and even entire congregations that have been repeatedly blindsided by conflict. These characteristics inevitably undermine a church’s unity, witness, and growth—and left unchecked, they can drastically reduce a church’s effectiveness in advancing the kingdom of God in its community.
But it’s not only pastors and churches that are being crippled by conflict. Every year countless Christian families are being weakened by ongoing tensions or utterly destroyed by divorce. One PCA pastor recently told me that there were at least fifty marriages in his church that were either “hanging by a thread” or already being dismembered in court. This pastor is an outstanding preacher, but by his own admission he and his elders are ill-equipped to protect their families from being torn apart by unchecked sin.
How can churches guard against the onslaught of crippling conflict? Consider the way shrewd football coaches protect their quarterbacks. They work to build a strong offensive line overall, but then invest a special effort in recruiting and training gifted left offensive tackles to guard their greatest vulnerability. In the same way, church elders can teach peacemaking on a broad level while deliberately recruiting and training gifted people to block those conflicts that pose serious threats to their pastors, families, and flock.
Train Shepherds and Gifted Members as Peacemakers
This two-pronged approach should usually begin with the officers of the church, who have been charged by God to guard the flock from all attacks, including conflict (Acts 20:28-31; cf. Acts 6:1-7 and John 10:11-12). Even Moses found it wise and necessary to recruit and train gifted leaders to whom he could delegate most of the day-to-day peacemaking responsibilities in the community of faith.
“How can I bear your problems and your burdens and your disputes all by myself? Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you…. So I took the leading men of your tribes, wise and respected men, and appointed them to have authority over you…. And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly…. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it’” (Deut. 1:12-17).
The apostle Paul taught the early church to replicate this process of deliberately raising up people to serve as peacemakers and mediators in the body of Christ:
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? (1 Cor. 6: 3-5).
Many PCA churches are applying these principles by recruiting and training “peacemaking teams” to support the elders in guarding their flocks against debilitating conflict. As one PCA pastor wrote,
Our pastoral staff is supported by a registered Peacemaking Team that consists of several trained elders, deacons, and members who are actively involved in a myriad of tough cases involving marital mediation, employment disputes, and the devastating consequences of sexual abuse. The value of this dedicated team was wonderfully highlighted when I was approached by a distraught church member after a recent worship service. Through her tears, she said, “Pastor, my husband’s been drinking and gambling again, and last night he didn’t come home.” What was I to do? In less than 20 hours, I was to board a plane for a week of meetings in Dallas. Should I cancel my trip? Where could I turn for support? At that moment, I remembered that this couple had connected well with one of our peacemaking-trained elders. I prayed with the weary wife and told her that I would ask this elder to contact her that day. The elder was happy to assist and promised to not only connect with the wife but also to locate and meet with her wayward husband while I was gone. Can you imagine my sense of relief? I can’t overstate the incredible blessing of being a part of a body that has trained a team of gifted members to help us live out our commitment to reconcile with one another as God has reconciled with us.
To facilitate the process of establishing these kinds of teams, Peacemaker Ministries has developed two companion resource sets, the Peacemaking Church Resource Set and The Leadership Opportunity, which provide all of the materials needed to identify, recruit, and train officers and gifted laity to serve a congregation as peacemaking shepherds.
Build a Culture of Peace
A second and equally important way to protect your church and its families from being blindsided by conflict is to build a “culture of peace” in which every man, woman, and child is inspired and equipped to live out the gospel in every day relational challenges. One of the best ways to begin this process is to provide a preaching series that is coordinated with weekly small group studies that give members an opportunity to discuss and apply the peacemaking principles God is teaching them through his Word. (An eight-session, DVD-driven Small Group Study is included in The Peacemaking Church Resource Set)
As everyone in the congregation develops skills and confidence in resolving differences in a biblical manner, the church and its families are far less likely to be blindsided by conflict. Instead, as they are guided by peacemaking shepherds, members can work together like a well-trained offensive line to block threatening conflict. At the same time, they can turn disagreements into opportunities to glorify God and advance his kingdom by displaying the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ken Sande is president of Peacemaker® Ministries (www.peacemaker.net) and author of The Peacemaker, which has been translated into eleven languages. He is passionate about bringing the life-changing power of God’s peacemaking principles into the lives of Christians and their churches. Ken has used biblical peacemaking principles to minister to parties in hundreds of conflicts ranging from simple personal disputes to complex church, corporate, and legal conflicts. He has written numerous books, articles, and other resources on biblical conflict resolution and is in frequent demand as a conference speaker. He and his wife, Corlette, love to hike with their two teenagers in the mountains near their home in Billings, Montana.
This article first appeared in Equip for Ministry, published by the CE/P Committee of the PCA and is used with permission.